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The meaning behind Memorial Day: A perspective

Mike Kanter



The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Image: US Dept. of Defense.

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I served on active duty during Vietnam as an Air Force logistics officer. However, I was fortunate. I had private quarters and never slept on the ground. I never served in a combat zone, but did have a visible job as a direct report to the base commander. Mine were a very comfortable three years while spending too much time in the officers’ club after hours. Regardless, through this experience and our country’s continuing involvement in senseless wars, I’ve gained a healthy respect for our veterans – all of them.

From my perspective, there were two big lessons derived from Vietnam – one for the general public and one for the politicians and senior public officials.

General public: Respect the troops. They are doing what they’re ordered to do. They have no say over whether we engage in war. They do their duty.

Politicians/public officials: Don’t capriciously go to war. Few are truly justified.

I think the general public has learned its lesson well. Contrary to the Vietnam era, I hear few demeaning comments about our troops. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I hear “Thank you for your service” almost ad nauseum. It sometimes seems gratuitous, but at least people are saying something positive. It’s nothing like what the military had to endure during Vietnam.

However, for the pols, et al., it’s different. They seem willing to go to war on almost any pretext. Starting with Korea, the forgotten war which I barely remember, justification seems pretty hazy. There probably would have been viable options to war. Regardless, the South Koreans did seem invested in not becoming part of a communist state. They were committed to the struggle, unlike what happened in succeeding conflicts. We essentially fought to a stalemate which still exists for fear of antagonizing China and a North Korean dictator. I would think we could have gotten to the same point through negotiation.

We all know about Vietnam and what a disaster it was. We couldn’t tell our friends from our enemies – by day friends, by night enemies. The civilian populace was just trying to survive and made whatever alliances were necessary to do so. They really didn’t care whether they were under communism or democracy. They just wanted to farm their fields and feed their families in peace. They finally got it once the South Vietnam government collapsed and the U.S. fled in humiliation.

Although there continued to be a massacre of SVNs by the Viet Cong, unification and peace ultimately prevailed after all the blood and money spent. Eventually communism collapsed and Vietnam now has a strong economy, and is one of our best trading partners in Southeast Asia. So much for the Dulles Brothers’ “domino theory.”

Then we get to the first Gulf War. That one actually went pretty well,  except for our abandonment of the Kurds at the close. We went in with a very limited scope and a well-defined exit plan. Get Saddam out of Kuwait. Make sure he didn’t try it again. Don’t topple his government, as that would create chaos. And just leave in orderly fashion. We did all those things and achieved our ends. In spite of Bush and Cheney’s preference to finish off Saddam.

Now comes the next travesty – post 9/11. Going back into Iraq was like punching the wrong guy in a fight. We did need to invade Afghanistan to find bin Laden, but not at the scale we did. At the height of the 2nd Iraq war, I heard an interview with James Baker. He said, “People used to ask me why we didn’t go in and finish off Saddam during the first war. They don’t ask me that any more.” A very telling comment. Again, all the blood and money spent for nothing.

With Afghanistan, yes we did need to capture bin Laden. I would have thought we’d bring him back to the U.S. for an execution, but let’s not delve into that. After many years of chasing him back and forth across the Afghan/Pakistan border, we finally found him and killed him under the watchful eyes of numerous senior officials.

Had we avoided all the “nation building,” we would have had a far more focused, effective effort. We would not have suffered the same fate as we did in Vietnam with many native civilians hanging onto aircraft as they evacuated U.S. diplomatic staff. Another humiliation for our country with the Taliban now running things, the same as prior to our involvement. And massive amounts of material in unintended hands.

With Ukraine, we seem to have it right. There is true will within the citizenry to resist Russian aggression. They are invested and are committed to prevailing. The U.S., along with other NATO countries, is providing strong arms support, but have yet to spill blood, nor should we. So far it’s working, and Putin is getting the comeuppance he well deserves. He’s painted himself into a corner. We’ll see whether he can get out.

I’ll tell one story which pretty well sums up all of the above. I have a boyhood friend who served in Vietnam as an enlisted infantryman. He was not nearly as fortunate as I was. He describes being out on patrol one day with his squad. They saw movement in the jungle ahead and took it to be an enemy armed vehicle. The Viet Cong didn’t have many, but that’s what they thought they saw. They fired several mortar barrages and the movement stopped.

Upon getting closer, they realized they had killed a water buffalo. It was a mess. Animal parts all over the place. However, that animal had been someone’s livelihood. It served as a tractor to farm the nearby field. Some farmer was going to have to replace it at great expense in order to make a living and feed his family.

This story serves as a metaphor for what most wars are. Senseless destruction of innocent lives for the sake of the egos of the powerful. It’s happened time and again throughout the history of mankind.

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